Autism and Bullying

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Children with autism are more at risk of being bullied than those without autism. According to a study, about two-thirds of children with ASD are or have been bullied at some point in their lives. [1] But parents of children with ASD disagree, believing the number is much higher.


    High Functioning Children More at Risk


    According to the study, completed by the Interactive Autism Network, high functioning children with ASD are bullied about three times more often than those who were not able to speak or spent most of their time in special ed classes. [1] The majority of children with autism have average or above average intelligence and many are mainstreamed in regular education classrooms. They are able to talk but have difficulty with social skills – such as participating in conversations and reading social cues.

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    Their disability is harder to see but symptoms of autism still separate them from their classmates. They may have a hard time holding a conversation or talk incessantly about their special interest. They may have repetitive behaviors, such as shaking their hands, or have a need to follow strict routines. They are often seen as strange, weird or different.


    Friends or Bullies?


    Children with autism often lack the ability to understand humor or sarcasm. Some children with autism, because they don’t understand the social nuances used by their age group, don’t understand if another child is making fun of them or trying to be their friend. This can set them up to be manipulated, a form of bullying. For example, a number of the boys in Tom’s class included him in their game. They had Tom take things from other student’s backpacks and desks. They told him they were just having fun and would give everything back later. But it was Tom who ended up in trouble for stealing.


    Limited Communication


    While the higher functioning children with autism are able to talk and may have an extensive vocabulary, their communication skills are limited. They aren’t able to describe the bullying and may never tell teachers or parents about what is going on in the hallways, during recess or before and after school. They may not know how to explain about teasing because they don’t understand it. Parents and teachers who would otherwise get involved to stop the bullying may not be aware of what is happening.  Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and an expert on bullying at John Hopkins University tells the New York Times, “Children with autism spectrum disorder aren’t very good at picking up on things like sarcasm and humor. They can be set up and made fun of in front of groups and not understand it.” [2]


    What Parents Can Do


    AutismSpeaks suggests parents start by asking the school to post anti-bullying policies in public areas around the school. Talk to the principal, teachers and other school personnel about the problem of bullying and what signs to look for.


    Some other suggestions include:

    • You should also include anti-bullying measures in your child’s IEP. Some ideas include teaching self-advocacy skills, having a “buddy” during unstructured times such as lunch time or recess.
    • Talk to your child about acceptable and unacceptable behavior from friends. Explain what friendship is and how friends should treat one another. Keep communication up, asking questions about interactions with other students, such as “Do your friends have special names for you?” . If your child is being bullied, reinforce that bullying is not his fault.
    • Continue to monitor the situation by visiting the school, volunteering and keeping open communication with teachers and other school personnel.

    If you think your child is being bullied, bring it to the attention of the school. Write a letter to the teacher or principal so you have a record of your communication. If nothing is done, file a formal complaint and, if needed, request an IEP meeting to discuss ways to stop and prevent bullying.

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    “5 Things Parents Can Do,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, National Autism Association


    [2] “School Bullies Prey on Children with Autism,” 2012, Sept. 3, Anahad O’Connor, The New York Times


    [1] “Why Autistic Kids Make Easy Targets for School Bullies,” 2012, Sept. 7, Maia Szalavitz,





Published On: November 07, 2013